‘I would rather die because of a missile than of sadness in another city’: Why Ukrainians are not leaving their frontline homes

Viktor and Nadiia with their granddaughter Alina at their home in Hirnyk, Donetsk region. Photo courtesy of Ryan Carter, used with permission

Sirens, shelling, tears, destruction — these are the realities of an average day in a frontline area in the East of Ukraine. Donetsk region, more than half of which is currently occupied by Russia, is shelled 1,500–2,500 times almost daily. Much of this shelling targets residential buildings and critical infrastructure, such as water and electricity supply. 

Still, for many leaving their homes is not an option. While many do not leave out of necessity, for example, they have no other place to go, others are making a conscious decision to stay despite having opportunities to relocate to a safer area, more often than not closer to their families. 

A family photo, courtesy of Viktor and Nadiia.

Viktor and Nadiia are just one example of this. Having met in Hirnyk, Donetsk region, they decided to spend their lives there, settled down, and started a family. Viktor was working in the coal industry, as many in the Donbas do, while Nadiia worked in retail from time to time, but mostly remained a stay-at-home mother to their two children. To them, the idea of leaving their home and relocating is out of the question, and they never considered it despite the hardships of living a mere 12 kilometers (7 miles) from the frontline.

Staying despite their family’s wishes 

Naturally, Viktor and Nadiia's families at first encouraged them to move out of the region. When the most recent invasion began, their granddaughter, who runs a humanitarian aid foundation in Dnipro, suggested they temporarily move into the foundation's shelter for internally displaced persons, with plans to then rent her grandparents a more permanent home in Dnipro, which they refused. Alina, their granddaughter, says:

I decided not to push them to evacuate, as I know from life experience that it cannot lead to anything good. Many years ago, when my great-grandfather died and my great-grandmother from my father’s side was left on her own, my grandmother decided to move her closer to take care of her. A couple of weeks later, she spiraled down into heavy depression, and in a couple of months, her dementia progressed exponentially. My grandmother always regretted taking away her mother’s independence, so I would never do the same to my older family members.

Certainly, now Nadiia and Viktor feel much more alone, as they miss spending time with family and friends the way they used to. Previously, their family would come to their house every weekend and they would spend the whole day together around the table in their garden. Nadiia added:

I certainly understand why people are leaving. Life here is hard and lonely. Our daughter lives pretty far away, so it is hard for her to visit us often. And our son lives in Saint Petersburg with his wife, so we never see each other anymore. For us things like going to the store are becoming increasingly difficult because we are getting older and older, but not seeing our family the way we used to is more painful. I understand why people would move to be closer to their families, but our life is here, and we would not be able to live anywhere else.

“I would rather die because of a missile than of sadness in another city,” says Viktor with a light smile on his face, walking towards his garden. Looking at the trees, flowers, and home-grown vegetables, a very odd feeling emerges — absolute serenity, even with the distant sounds of gunfire. The tremendous care and love for nature, as well as passion and desire to live, are evident in this small but well-maintained garden. It seems that, to Viktor and Nadiia, this garden is not only a reminder of their happy moments with their family and friends but also their projection of hope and intentions for the future. 

A family photo, courtesy of Viktor and Nadiia.

When asked how their lives have changed after the full-scale invasion, Viktor immediately replied that they have not. However, after that, he immediately mentioned that he is unable to access Ukrainian television anymore, as it was blocked and replaced by Russian channels. Jokingly, he said that he does not know how he manages to stay sane in these circumstances. 

Looking around, the area once obviously filled with families, now seems deserted. A lot of people have left the neighborhood, so for Viktor and Nadiia, ordinary tasks like going to the store to buy some produce are becoming more difficult. “We used to ask some of our neighbors to go to the store for us, but now there is no one we can ask any more. Luckily, our granddaughter often goes to the Donetsk region for work, and brings us what we need.”

At first, neither Viktor nor Nadiia mentioned unstable access to water, electricity, and the internet as challenging for them. When asked directly, they simply said that they have gotten used to not being so reliant on these modern conveniences. “Of course, it helps that we are in our own house, so it is easier for us to store water for later usage, or simply go outside and do some gardening when we have no electricity. If we lived in an apartment building, it would be much more difficult,” says Nadiia. 

Staying as an act of resistance 

“I cannot give them [Russians] the satisfaction,” says Viktor. For him and Nadiia, leaving would mean giving up in the larger sense — giving up on their homeland and on their family roots. He adds:

It is true that some people who remain here are waiting for the Russians to come and take over, but most of us just wish for a peaceful life in our own country. We love our land, we have lived here for decades, both alone and with our children and grandchildren, so if we leave it we would feel like we are giving our whole life up to Russians. We are pretty comfortable here, we have our pensions and a comfortable home with lots of happy memories, so the least we could do is stay, continue our life here, and pray for those who are protecting us right now.

The Russian shelling strategy, which often targets civilian buildings and infrastructure, aims to completely demoralize the local population and force those who survive to leave everything behind and evacuate. Still, for independent and courageous people like Nadiia and Viktor, the dignity of remaining true to yourself, your home, and your homeland cannot be overridden with fear. 

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